Classical Culture in British India, Part I: The Bengal ‘Renaissance’

Jaspreet Singh Boparai

Classical Greek and Latin literature, and the cultural heritage of ancient Athens and Rome, were introduced to British India in the 19th century, with unpredictable, and magical, results. Of course, the Indian subcontinent already had its own venerable classical traditions: you may introduce yourself to their treasures thanks to the Clay Sanskrit Library and the Murthy Classical Library of India.

Some of Calcutta’s finest literary artists became proficient Latinists; at least one mastered Ancient Greek to a level that would embarrass most professional academics today. Yet he did this without turning his back on the languages or traditions of his ancestors. This unlikely Hellenist also turns out to be the greatest of all Bengali poets, and the author of some truly astonishing works that engage directly with Homer, Vergil and Ovid, all of which he read in the original languages. This series of essays will show you the world he lived in, tell you who he was (and where he learned Greek and Latin), and introduce you to his greatest works, which re-imagine ancient Hindu mythology in literary forms borrowed from Greece and Rome. First we should look into the uniquely rich intellectual culture that created him.

Chhabi Biswas in The Music Room (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1958).

“Cives Britannici”

Where the British Empire is concerned, one of the more unpredictable witnesses is the Bengali writer Nirad Chaudhuri (1897–1999), who was born in what is now Bangladesh, studied in Calcutta, spent most of his working life in New Delhi, and spoke and wrote an almost surreally precise, correct, old-fashioned English, despite never visiting England before the age of 57, when he left India for the first time to go on an eight-week holiday that included a fortnight in Paris and a week in Rome. Not only did Chaudhuri know the best English literature, he was also conversant with the classics of 17th-century French literature, and knew a certain amount of Classical Latin as well. He left India permanently in his seventies, and settled in Oxford, where he died a few months before his 102nd birthday.

Chaudhuri delighted in provocation and mischief; his literary oeuvre remains contentious and divisive to this day. Yet even his many detractors cannot deny the importance of his first book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951). Still, those who champion Chaudhuri’s work are often reluctant to admit how the greatness of the Autobiography is almost accidental.

Nirad Chaudhuri (1897–1999) in his eighties.

Chaudhuri’s prose is at once dry and florid; at its finest it recalls the clarity and balance of 18th-century ‘Augustan’ writing, with a similar depth of knowledge and experience to give weight to the more memorable phrases; but in English (if not Bengali) Chaudhuri only had a high style. He could not speak plainly. Also, he could be a pedant and a bore.

Even the best chapters of the Autobiography are occasionally marred by longueurs, particularly where Chaudhuri has allowed himself leisure to develop one of his less popular opinions. The volume ends with an “Essay on the Course of Indian History” which provides a foretaste of the crankily eccentric book-length diatribes which the author began publishing in his sixties. That said, for all its flaws, this is a great book – one of the most important autobiographies in English.

Chaudhuri managed to capture and encapsulate an entire culture at the moment of its passing, unconsciously and almost in spite of himself. He was an honest observer with a shrewd eye, an excellent memory and a scrupulous, fastidious attentiveness to detail, all of which enabled him to chronicle the complexities, paradoxes and contradictions of the society that made this work possible. This is the secret to the author’s grandeur – not his attempts to sound like a Cabinet minister under the Marquess of Salisbury.

At its best, the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian avoids abstractions in favour of vivid anecdotes and reliable experience: you trust Chaudhuri’s judgment when he generalises, because you know he is not trying to marshal evidence for some theory or other.

The Blue Plaque outside Chaudhuri’s British home, on Lathbury Road, Oxford.

Chaudhuri worked for many years as a civil servant, in Calcutta and New Delhi, and served from 1942 as a political commentator at All India Radio. He worked on his Autobiography between 1947 and 1951, and was fired shortly after its publication. No wonder: this is the dedication of the volume, printed all in capital letters to mimic the style seen on the bases of imperial statues:













This causes outrage even now; imagine how this must have seemed in New Delhi in 1951, when India had only been independent for four years. In 1997, in his essay “My Hundredth Year” (for a special issue of the literary journal Granta) Chaudhuri explained why he had written that dedication. He accused the Indian public of:

failure to understand its significance: it was really a condemnation of the British rulers for not treating us as equals. It was an imitation of what Cicero said about the conduct of Verres, a Roman proconsul of Sicily who oppressed the Sicilian Roman citizens, although in their desperation they cried out ‘Civis Romanus sum’.

“Cicero Against Verres”, a satirical print depicting Edmund Burke (1729–97 at the time of the Warren Hastings impeachment trial (1787), the text beneath which can be read here.

In some senses the explanation is plausible. All of Chaudhuri’s works testify to his wide reading and excellent memory; many feature quotations from French and Latin classics that are deliberately left untranslated. But did he really not predict the reaction to his work? Surely he knew what he was doing – up to a point anyway.

Chaudhuri was one of the last living exemplars of that extraordinary English-language culture that arose in Calcutta in the Victorian era, when it rose to become the Second City of the British Empire. But Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata (1964) may provide the best introduction for those who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon.

Satyajit Ray in 1955, during the shooting of Pather Panchali.

The World of Charulata

Ray (1922–92), like Chaudhuri, was a member of the Bengali bhadralok – the educated, highly civilised bourgeoisie that came to dominate cultural and intellectual life in Calcutta throughout the period of British rule. Watch an interview with him on YouTube, and marvel at his poise, his magnetism and air of authority, his beautiful English. Do you know of any English or American cultural figures who speak so well, or could so easily win your respect?

Charulata was based on a novel by Sir Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, and renounced his British knighthood in the wake of the Amritsar Massacre.[1]

 He remains the central figure in Bengali culture, just as Goethe is for Germans. His work does not necessarily translate well into English; you can get some idea of the range and magnitude of his talents through reading one of his novels or short stories, but the best way for a ‘Westerner’ to experience his work might be through one of Satyajit Ray’s cinematic tributes to Tagore, such as Three Daughters (1961) or Home and the World (1984).

Charulata takes place in 1879, in the home of Bhupati Dutt, a Westernised, self-consciously enlightened landowner whose wife Charulata is sensitive, intelligent and terribly bored. To help entertain her, he invites his young cousin Amal to stay with them in their expensively ‘modern’ mansion in Calcutta. Amal has just left college, and has a literary bent; he turns out to be useful for one of Bhupati’s more engrossing philanthropic projects, a liberal newspaper called The Sentinel.

Madhabi Mukherjee, in her most celebrated performance as Charulata (1964).

Even if you cannot understand a word of Bengali, you are struck by the sheer profusion of English words and names that pepper the dialogue throughout Charulata. Of course there are some exchanges in English as well. Bhupati’s heroes are Edmund Burke, Thomas Babington Macaulay and, above all, William Ewart Gladstone. He throws a party when the news reaches Calcutta that Gladstone and the Liberals have won a General Election. Amal, by contrast, has no real interest in politics; although he composes poetry in Bengali, his idols are Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare.

What is Ray showing us in Charulata, and what is he trying to tell us? Why should Classicists be interested in this, beyond the pleasure, satisfaction, intellectual enrichment and moral insight always to be gained from the work of a great artist?

Shailen Mukherjee as Charulata’s husband, Bhupati Dutt; Soumitra Chatterjee as the older man’s cousin Amal.

A Poet’s Prose Rhapsody on Language

Satyajit Ray and Nirad Chaudhuri both demonstrate, in their own ways, how completely an Indian could master the English language in the 20th century, and make it his own, without ever having to leave home, or submerge, compromise or deny his identity, his ancestral culture, or his heritage. These men were able to accomplish all this, and create works of lasting importance, thanks not only to the self-confident intellectual society within which they arose, and the first-rate institutions that educated them, but also to a literary tradition that was already over a century old when The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was published.

Late-19th-century gouache painting of two noblemen watching ladies in conversation, Amritsar, India (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK).

Greek and Latin poetry and prose were of some importance within that tradition, as the following text, an excerpt from an address given in Madras in 1854, makes undeniably clear:

I have heard the pastoral pipe of the Mantuan Swain; I have heard that Mantuan strike, with a bolder hand, the lyre of heroic poesy and sing of arms and the man whom the hatred of white-armed Juno imperilled both by land and by sea!  I have listened to the melodies of gay Flaccus, that lover of the sparkling bowl, and the joyous banquet; I have heard of bloody Pharsalia, and learned to love Epicurus, the honour of the Greek race; I have sighed over the sad strains of him who, in his cheerless exile, sang of the hapless and the absent lover; the harp of the blind old man of Scio’s rocky isle, singing of the wrath of Achilles, the direful spring of woes unnumbered to Greece, has often hushed my soul to awe; I have seen gorgeous Tragedy in sceptred pall come sweeping by, presenting Thebes’s or Pelops’s line; I am no stranger to the eloquence of fiery Demosthenes, of calm and philosophic Cicero; I am no stranger to marvel-relating Livy; to sententious Thucydides; to the delightful out-pourings of the father of historic novelists – the man of Halicarnassus; I have heard the melodious voice of him who from the green tree of Poesy sang of Rama like a Kokila; I have wept over the fatal war of the implacable Courava and the heroic Pandava; I have grieved over the sufferings of her who lost the fatal ring; I have wandered with Hafiz on the banks of Rocknabad and the rose-bowers of Mosellay; I have moralised with Saddi, and seen Roustum shedding tears of agony over his brave but hapless son; I have laughed with Molière; the melody from the dismal prison-cell of Torquato Tasso has soothed my ears.  I have visited the lightless regions of Hades with Dante; I know Laura’s sad lover, who gave himself to fame with melodious tears; but give me the literature, the language of the Anglo-Saxon! Banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins; but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, banish him not thy Harry’s company:  banish plump Jack and banish all the world!  I say, give me the language – the beautiful language of the Anglo-Saxon![2]

These words were written by Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824–73), the most brilliant, charismatic and controversial Bengali writer of the 19th century. It was, ironically, his last substantial work in English, other than some verse (including an incomplete drama), a pair of translations, and his often-astonishing English-language correspondence, which deserves classic status but remains little-read even among connoisseurs of Indian literature.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Atul Bose, c.1950 (Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta, India).

English literature obsessed Dutt: he so severely neglected his mother tongue in his youth that he felt compelled to ask a professor at the Sanskrit College of Calcutta to correct grammatical errors in his first Bengali-language work, the play Sermista, which he began writing in July 1858, at the age of 34. Dutt was also one of the first Indians to gain a high level of competence in Classical Greek and Latin: his surviving examination records demonstrate that this is not an exaggeration. Unlike many modern university Classicists, he appears to have read all the Greek and Roman authors he mentions above, in the original languages.

For all his apparent Anglophilia, Dutt is regarded as the creator of modern Bengali literature:  he introduced blank verse to the language, and wrote its first sonnets; he composed tragedies inspired by Shakespeare, a set of verse-letters closely modelled on Ovid’s Heroides, a Keats-style epyllion, and a Milton-influenced epic, all during an explosion of creative activity between 1858 and 1862 – and all rooted in Hindu mythology; in this period he also composed two satirical drawing-room farces.

Colour illustration from an anonymous ‘scandal drama’, Ājakāra Bājāra Bhau, 1873 (British Library, London, VT 1396_m).

Despite Dutt’s uncontested status within Bengali literature, his legacy is (arguably) mixed. Some of his personal achievements remain, by any standard, formidable: he was one of the first Calcutta natives to qualify as a barrister in London, at the Inns of Court. Others are perhaps slightly less worthy of celebration: he may have been the first Indian to wear European-style mutton-chop side-whiskers (connected to an impressive moustache). Then there are the scandals, beginning with his conversion to Christianity.

 If Dutt was not the first Bengali to marry a European, he must surely have been the first of any standing to abandon a European wife, then live openly in sin with a European mistress; his conversion to Christianity might not have been entirely wholehearted (to say the least). As with many poets he was a flamboyant, extravagant dandy, an erudite, garrulous wit – and a reckless drunkard. In the end he may have taken his Romanticism too far: he died sick, humiliated and penniless at the age of 49, of consumption aggravated by alcoholism, on 29 June 1873, three days after his mistress Henrietta White.

Evidently it may take more than an evening’s screening of Charulata to begin to make sense of Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

The Rabindra Complex museum in Bangladesh, originally the home of Rabindranath Tagore’s father-in-law, Beni Madhab Roy Chowdhury.

The Bengal Renaissance

In the year of Dutt’s birth, an editorial appeared in the India Gazette, by the poet Henry Derozio (then just shy of his sixteenth birthday), that began thus:


Monday Morning 7 o’clock. 8 March 1824.

Calcutta ought to have its name changed. Instead of being called the city of Palaces, it should be denominated the city of Poets. Parnassus is no longer the haunt of the Muses. They have fled to Calcutta, and the Hooghly has become the Castalian stream. The reader of the India Gazette cannot but have observed, long ere now, the copiousness and variety of the poetic talent which has adorned, and to this day continues to embellish, its pages. Glad are we that our paper has been made the channel of such marvellous effusions of Genius. Like the Rustic mentioned by Horace, we have at times supposed that the poetic stream would run itself out – but no –

Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.[3]

Scholarly debate continues to rage (or splutter) about the unprecedented cultural and intellectual flowering that remains commonly known as the ‘Bengal Renaissance’. At least it may be generally agreed that there was something uniquely fertile and generative about the encounter between the Bengalis and the British colonialists of the East India company.[4]

Rabindranath Tagore (centre) at his son Rathindranath’s wedding in 1909, with his son, daughter-in-law and two of his daughters.

The Bengal Renaissance, whatever precisely it was, and whenever exactly it took place, produced any number of original, eccentric, and admirable figures: the religious reformer Rammohun Roy (1772–1833); Ishwar Chandra Vidyasaghar (1820–91), a formidable Sanskritist and theorist of education, as well as an influential social reformer, who opposed such traditions as child marriage and polygamy; the man of letters Raj Narayan Basu (1826–99); the bilingual novelist and intellectual Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94); the entire Tagore family – Dwarkanath (1794–1846), philanthropist and capitalist, who once dined with Queen Victoria, and helped co-found the Brahmo Samaj with Rammohun Roy; Debendranath (1817–1905), another Hindu religious reformer;  Gyanendra Mohun (1826–90), the first Bengali barrister, who converted to Christianity and was disinherited by his father – the list is long, and covers developments in literature, scientific research, music, philosophy, religion ­­– all the areas of achievement for which the French habitually name streets after people.

Dhurrumtollah Street (now renamed after Lenin), Calcutta, India, between 1865 and 1875.

Just as the Italian Renaissance would have been impossible without the advent of humanism, the growth of Classical philology, the recovery, copying and re-circulation of ancient manuscripts (and the texts they contained), and the revival of Ancient Greek as well as the renewal of Latin, the Bengal Renaissance is unthinkable without its intense focus on language, as a vehicle for communication, literary expression, and the advancement of learning. Language was a serious concern at the time in Calcutta, where Arabic, Portuguese, Persian and Sanskrit were all spoken to varying degrees (alongside Bengali, English and Hindi).

Unsurprisingly, some of Calcutta’s more self-consciously ‘practical’ educational reformers were ambivalent about the value of ancient languages, antiquarian knowledge and traditional forms of learning. Whatever they thought about Latin and Greek, their attitudes towards the Indian classical language, Sanskrit, was not always positive. As for Latin and Greek, and Greco-Roman literature, at least these things had an instrumental value in the British Empire: it was impossible to pass certain professional exams without them.

Portrait of Rammohun Roy, Rembrandt Peale, 1833 (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, USA).

Languages Sacred, Profane, and Classical

In 1813, when the East India Company’s charter was renewed by the British parliament, it was on the understanding that the Company would take the responsibility of educating their native subjects. In 1816 a group of eminent Calcutta citizens (among them Rammohun Roy) approached Sir Edward Hyde East, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to mediate with the Company to set up an English-language school, for providing Indian boys with a European-style liberal education. The Hindoo College (now Presidency College, Calcutta) was established in 1817 for just this purpose.

Rammohun Roy complained in a letter to the British Governor-General that Sanskrit,

so difficult that almost a lifetime is necessary for its acquisition, is well known to have been for ages a lamentable check to the diffusion of knowledge, and the learning concealed under this impermeable veil is far from sufficient to reward the labour of acquiring it.’[5]

The Sanskrit question is interesting in light of Roy’s theological ideas, and his attempts to reform Hindu religious practices along Deist and/or Unitarian lines.

Traditional Hindus often consider Sanskrit to be sacred, as a ritual language in which the most ancient and holy books were composed, and the most important liturgies and ceremonies are performed; Rammohun Roy’s attitudes toward Sanskrit were motivated in part by his wish to do away with practices and beliefs that did not suit his personal vision of a reformed Hinduism.

If students at the Hindoo College were educated entirely in English, then all the materials and ideas that Roy regarded as out of date could quietly be bypassed – as could any uncomfortable theological arguments. Those who objected would simply not have first-hand access to any untranslated materials that might potentially support their objections. In this sense his tactics sounds remarkably like those of the Latin-hating ‘reformers’ of the 20th-century Catholic Church.

The Hindoo College was instrumental in creating an indigenous English-speaking, at least moderately Whiggish intellectual class in Bengal. Its former pupils were at the centre of liberalising movements in religion (against caste restrictions and dietary taboos – the eating of beef, for example), and society (widow remarriage, and the abolition of suttee, or the forced immolation of women on the funeral pyres of their husbands); more boringly, it also helped to supply the East India Company with a body of more or less capable native administrators.

Administrators – or mere competent functionaries? Throughout the 19th century, it was impossible to enter the Indian Civil Service, or be called to the Bar, without a good command of Latin and Greek; as it happens, the Hindoo College offered instruction in neither language.

Portrait of Thomas Babington Macaulay, John Partridge, c.1850 (National Portrait Gallery, London, UK).

The school was founded almost twenty years before Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous “Minute on Education” (2 February 1835), which he circulated in his capacity as officer of the East India Company’s Committee on Public Instruction. To most modern readers this text is breathtakingly offensive; yet this was what the most self-consciously ‘progressive’ Whigs of the era openly thought; and even the Indian supporters of the Hindoo College would have found little reason to object even to its most inflammatory statements: 

I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. Honours might be roughly even in works of the imagination, such as poetry, but when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable.[6]

This settled the question of whether Company-funded schools should operate in English. Besides, Macaulay’s proposal was not to educate the entire nation, but

to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the people we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

Sketch of Macaulay’s funeral, Sir George Scharf, c.1860 (National Portrait Gallery, London, UK).

The purpose of English-language education was thus to create, not rulers or authorities, but reliable middlemen. To a great degree, the phenomenon we call the Bengal Renaissance centred round the intellectual and literary activities and enlightened social reforms of precisely this class of people; once that is taken into account, it becomes easier to see why the term ‘Renaissance’ turns out to be such an uncomfortable and unsatisfying one, particularly in the eyes of Indian intellectuals who differ in their position from Nirad Chaudhuri.

If the Hindoo College offered only English-language instruction, and offered its students Classical texts only in English translation, then how could a Bengali of the period develop any skills in Latin and Greek – or pass the exams necessary to qualify for the Bar, or the Indian Civil Service, or other professions where classical knowledge was a non-negotiable requirement?

In Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s case, the process involved being kicked out of the Hindoo College, then spending three years at Bishop’s College, a missionary institution set up by the Anglican Church in 1820 to train preachers, catechists and schoolmasters. Such a path was unavailable to anyone unwilling to convert to Christianity – to which many major figures in the Bengal Renaissance were cool or sceptical, to the point in some instances of open irreverence (if not outright hostility).

Sarcophagus depicting the triumph of Bacchus over India, 3rd cent. AD (Gallo-Roman Museum, Lyon, France).

Young Bengal

Some commentators are reluctant to associate Dutt with the Bengal Renaissance, because they view it as something more associated with the Tagore clan, the Brahmo Samaj movement, and high-minded reform in general. But it might make more sense to consider him as part of the ‘Young Bengal’ movement, which overlapped with the Renaissance in terms of place, time and relevant figures, and indeed many of its dominant positions, attitudes and philosophies – but sounds rather less austere. After all, we remember Michael Madhusudan Dutt as a poet rather than a ‘reformer’ or diligent scholar; and ‘Young Bengal’ was a high-spirited Romantic movement, rather than a forum for earnest discussions between sober middle-aged men.

‘Young Bengal’ had a definite centre – the Hindoo College – and an obvious founder, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809–31), a charming and influential young teacher hired by the College in March 1826, shortly before he turned seventeen, an irreverent Hume- and Paine-loving atheist sceptic who composed Shelleyan/Byronesque English verse, taught English and History at the school, and attracted a cult-following of students, until he was sacked for irreligious attitudes at the age of 21; he died of cholera in December 1831, aged just 22. It is no surprise to learn of his fondness for amateur dramatics. 

Derozio’s pupils picked up his relentlessly questioning attitude: this was what made him dangerous in the eyes of élites both Hindu and Christian. He was a copious and energetic versifier, of whose verses J. J. Buckingham declared, in the Oriental Herald in 1829, it was as if “a Briton, in the time of Severus, had suddenly written a poem in good Latin.”

Some of Derozio’s reading-lists survive; his pupils were fed a diet of English Romanticism, mixed with Robert Burns, Walter Scott, the Scottish Enlightenment, and material related to the French Revolution (or Wordsworth’s version of it). The history they read was distinctly Whiggish and anti-authoritarian; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was prominent on syllabi for older students. In general, Derozio’s pupils were encouraged to question, not only Hindu traditions, and the customs of their forefathers, but also British rule in India – particularly where power and authority were seen to be abused.

A self-portrait by Henry Derozio (lithograph published in The Oriental Magazine, October 1843).

The literary historian Dinesh Chandra Sen later lamented the culture that grew up around Derozio, then took on a life of its own and spread far beyond the walls of the Hindoo College:

Young Bengal, as the new generation of the Bengalis were then called, became thoroughly anglicised in spirit. They exulted in Shakespeare’s dramas and Milton’s poetry; they read Schiller’s Robbers and Goethe’s Faust; they could name all the English dramatists of the Elizabethan age – Marlowe, Philip Massinger, Ford, John Webster, Ben Jonson, and Shirley, and reproduce from memory lines from still earlier dramatists, and from Holinshed’s Chronicles, which Shakespeare had improved on, in many a noble line. They went mad after Shelley’s Epipsychidion, Keats’s Hyperion, and even after Chatterton’s Death of Charles Bodwin. Poor Chandi Das, poor Vidyapati and Kavi Kankana! The tears of your departed spirit fell on the big towns of Bengal which lay under the charm of European influence – mixed with nocturnal dews, and unheeded by Young Bengal.[7]

Portrait of the novelist and political thinker Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94).

The movement essentially created the figure of the English-speaking ‘babu’, later caricatured so mercilessly by Rudyard Kipling; but at their best, the class of educated Bengalis formed in the wake of this movement aspired to a culture that was sceptical but tolerant, and intellectually curious –intelligently irreverent; the aim was to fuse the very best of Indian traditions with the greatest achievements of European artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, thinkers. The following passage, translated by Nirad Chaudhuri from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s 1877 novel Rajani, portrays the ideal worldly Calcutta gentleman of the period:

He did not disclose his business, nor could I ask him outright. So we discussed social reform and politics. I found him an accomplished conversationalist. His mind was cultivated, his education complete, and his thought far-reaching. There being a pause in the conversation, he began to turn over the Shakespeare Gallery on my table. In the meanwhile, I had a good look at him. He was a most handsome man; fair, rather short but neither stout nor lean; his eyes large, hair fine, curly and carefully arranged; he was not over-dressed but was perfectly neat; a man with an exquisite conversational style and a beautiful voice. I could plainly see that he was a sophisticated person.

Amarnath did not come to business even after the plates of The Shakespeare Gallery had been gone over, and began to discuss the pictures. His thesis was that it was an audacious conceit that tried to depict in a picture what was expressed in language and through action; such attempts could never be successful, nor were these pictures successful. He opened the picture of Desdemona and observed: ‘You get her patience, sweetness, and modesty, but where is her courage with the patience, and her pride of constancy with the modesty?’ He pointed to the illustration of Juliet and said: ‘You have here the figure of a beauty in the first flush of youth, but you miss youth’s irrepressible restlessness.’

Amarnath continued in this vein. From Shakespeare’s heroes he came to Sakuntala, Sita, Kadamvari, Vasavadatta, Rukmini, and Satyabhama, and he analysed their characters. The discussion of ancient literature led in its turn to ancient historiography, out of which there emerged some incomparable exposition out of the classical historians, Tacitus, Plutarch, Thucydides, and others. From the philosophy of history of these writers Amarnath came down to Comte and his loi des trois états, which he endorsed. Comte brought in his interpreter Mill and then Huxley; Huxley brought in Owen and Darwin; and Darwin Buchner and Schopenhauer. Amarnath poured the most entrancing scholarship into my ears, and I became too engrossed to remember our business.

One of the less unflattering comic depictions of a Bengali ‘babu’, c.1904.

Amarnath may seem, frankly, a bit of a bore; and it must be admitted that not all of Young Bengal lived up to this ideal. Many followers of this movement were insolent young men, nothing more, showing disrespect towards tradition purely for the sake of outrage; as ever, Nirad Chaudhuri has the best anecdote:

One day one of these boys was taken to the famous temple at Kalighat and asked to bow down to the goddess Kali. He flatly refused, and when pressed by his father only raised his right hand and said in English, “Good morning, madam.” The irate father fell on him and was on the point of giving him a beating when the other worshippers intervened with the argument that, however serious the boy’s offence, the peace of the holy enclosure must not be disturbed. The father could only apologise to the others for the blasphemy of his son, and he cursed himself as the unfortunate father of a boy who wished ‘good morning’ to the Mother of All The Worlds, who was worshipped even by the great Trinity of Gods headed by Brahma.

A pious father and his ‘modern’ son; from Satyajit Ray’s The Goddess (1960).

Indeed, Young Bengal was often little better than a club of rich boys eating beef and wearing English clothes; many were simply piss-artists. At the age of fifteen, Derozio published an essay in the India Gazette on the virtues of drunkenness:

I have a distinct recollection of having, in my younger and uninitiated days, fallen down stairs, and inflicted severe injury upon my nose one evening upon which I am positive that I had not drunk more than six bottles. In fact, however, all that I now complain of is an inability to get drunk as fast as I could wish. I drink out of tumblers, whilst the rest of the company are using wine-glasses; but ’tis to no purpose – they are invariably in Elysium before me. Whilst they are gay, I am sombre; and by the time I am beginning to get into spirits, they are all under the table. 

By the 1860s, Young Bengal seems to have degenerated into a tweed frat house, with the discussion of ideas and literature the thinnest pretext for meeting up to smoke, drink, eat beef, and visit brothels. Dinabandhu Mitra’s 1866 farce Sadhabar Ekadasi (The Wife’s Widowhood) satirises the Young Bengalis, featuring a half-affectionate lampoon of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Nimchand Datta, eloquently learned and as drunk as an owl, who quotes at great length from English writers, and is given the best line in the play: “Banchot college-er naam dubule, mod khete chay na”: “The sister-f****r has ruined the College’s reputation: he doesn’t want to drink.”

A party scene from Satyajit Ray’s 1958 film Jalsaghar.

Dutt himself lampooned Young Bengal in his two drawing-room comedies, both of which are next to impossible to translate – much of the humour lies in the fact that his characters speak their mother tongues half in English, as in the following translated excerpt from the play known in English as “We Call It Civilisation”:

[NABA, a Brown Sahib, stands and addresses his fellow drunken Babus in a Calcutta brothel.]

NABA: Gentlemen, we are all born in the Hindoo tribe, but by virtue of our education we have cut the chain of Superstition and made ourselves free: no longer are we prepared to kneel at the sight of an idol – the darkness of our ignorance having been scattered by the candle of Enlightenment; now I pray that all of you, with united head and heart, will endeavour to achieve social reformation for this country.


NABA: Gentlemen, educate your women – liberate them – cast off division – and remarry the widows – then and only then will our beloved land of Bharat – India – be able to stand against civilised countries elsewhere – for example, England. Without this – never!


NABA: But alas, Gentlemen, this country is now a great prison for us. These premises alone serve as our Liberty Hall, our garden of Freedom; here we may do as we please. Gentlemen, in the name of Freedom, let us enjoy ourselves!

[Naba sits down.]

ALL THE OTHER BABUS [in English]: Hear, hear, – Heep, Heep, Hooray [sic], Hoo-ray; Liberty Hall – be free – let us enjoy ourselves!

[ALL commence drinking wine; ENTER PROSTITUTES, singing and dancing.][8]

Chhabi Biswas in Jalsaghar (1958).

This was the sort of literary society in which relatively little reading and writing was accomplished. Or so Dutt would have had his audience believe. But the example of his own life, at least for a while, demonstrates otherwise.

Part II of this essay can be read here.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai recently abandoned academia to cultivate the Muses. He has previously written for Antigone on Tacitus and the thrill of writing here, on the challenges of translating (pseudo-)Latin here, on the pleasures of Poussin here, on Neo-Latin syphilis here, on Apuleius the ‘witch’ here, and on V.S. Naipaul and Latin here.

Further Reading

Amit Chaudhuri’s Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (Macmillan, London, 2001; published in America in 2004 as The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature) is over twenty years old, yet remains essential; no anthology of Indian literature is more generous or comprehensive, and the editor’s taste, judgment and sensitivity make him an especially trustworthy guide to the subject.

Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian has been available since 2001 in a New York Review Books edition. The sequel, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (1987) is out of print, as are most of this author’s works.

Chaudhuri’s most perceptive critic is V.S. Naipaul, whose 2007 collection A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Seeing features a typically generous yet pitiless appraisal. Naipaul, like Chaudhuri, was a master provocateur, only more so, being wholly conscious of his effects. A Writer’s People was unfavourably reviewed on its publication due to Naipaul’s essay on Anthony Powell (1905–2000); but the passage of time has proven the soundness of his judgment (I say this as one who has enjoyed Powell’s work).

Satyajit Ray’s movies are widely available, both for download and on Blu-Ray and DVD; in addition to Charulata you should also watch Jalsaghar (“The Music Room”, 1958), starring Chhabi Biswas as a cultured (and self-destructive) feudal landlord in rural Bengal. Come to think of it, you might want to watch as many of Ray’s films as possible. He is, as hinted above, one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema.

Scholarly books on 19th-century Calcutta and the Bengali literature of the period can be surprisingly difficult to locate outside India, even in the libraries of well-funded universities; this despite the fact that good editions of Henry Derozio’s poetry (R. Chaudhuri ed., 2008) and Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s letters (Ghulam Murshid ed., 2004) have been published by Oxford University Press within the past twenty years. Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal Books, Calcutta, 2003; 2nd ed., 2009) is the best short introduction for general readers, and deserves to be reprinted.


1 For those who are unfamiliar with the details of this event, Sir Ferdinand Mount’s essay “They Would Have Laughed” (London Review of Books, 4 April 2019, available here) provides a reasonably full introduction. The Amritsar Massacre helped turn public opinion against British rule in India, and remains an open wound to this day, even though the event itself has long since passed out of living memory – as the entire British Empire soon will, in fact.
2 From ‘The Anglo-Saxon and the Hindoo’ (1854); quoted in Amit Chaudhuri’s wonderful Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (Macmillan, London, 2001).
3 “It glides and will glide, rolling on for all time.” The full text of this letter will be found in R. Chaudhuri (ed.), Derozio, Poet of India: the Definitive Edition (Oxford UP, 2008) 9–10. Chaudhuri has judiciously edited this volume, and the introduction in particular is refreshingly readable, without the tiresome French-inspired American-style theorising that too often mars scholarship of this sort.
4 For a concise introduction to the ‘Renaissance’, see Amit Chaudhuri, “A Feather! A Feather Upon The Very Face!”, London Review of Books 22.1 (6 Jan. 2000) 21–4, available here, and C.A. Bayly’s letter of response of 20 Jan. 2000). The classic literary account of the ‘Renaissance’ will – of course – be found in Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.
5 Rammohun Roy, “Letter on Indian Education,” in W.T. de Bary (ed.) Sources of Indian Tradition (Columbia UP, New York, 1958),2:40–3.
6 The full text is easily available, and ought to be studied in full here.
7 Dinesh Chandra Sen, History of Bengali Language and Literature (Calcutta UP, 1911) 883.
8 A sample of Dutt’s “We Call It Civilisation”, adapted from Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History (Signal Books, Calcutta, 2009) 88–9.